Sections Precarious Life in Motion

Real People

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Housework

Megan Steffen

October 14, 2013
Zhengzhou, Henan Province, People’s Republic of China

In 1938, to prevent the Japanese from taking control of the railroads at Zhengzhou, Chiang Kai-shek ordered the destruction of the dams at Huayuankou and unleashed the Yellow River on the Japanese Army–and his own people. The resulting flood killed somewhere between half a million and a million people, destroyed whole towns, farms, and villages, and left millions homeless. (Remember, I’m not a mathematician or a historian.) It did stop the Japanese from taking Zhengzhou, but in the end they just took Wuhan (the other important railway hub) instead. This man-made flood came just seven years after another flood–what some have called the worst natural disaster in history–devastated the region.

I think of Chiang and his decision to blow up the levees every time I clean my apartment here in Henan. One of the unanticipated results of the flood was sudden, irreversible erosion. The thick, yellow silt that gives the Yellow River the “yellow” color of its name traveled with the water, into people’s homes, onto their fields, and over to places as far away as Anhui and Jiangsu. If I leave my windows open during the day, I’ll return to find everything covered with a fine layer of brownish-red dust: residue from what people here sometimes call the “Mother River.”

What kind of worldview must someone have, I often wonder to myself as I mop the floors, to make the decision Chiang made? Sure, historians have laid out the reasons: If the Japanese had taken Zhengzhou, they would have had the railways, and by stopping them in Kaifeng, Chiang was saving Xi’an and (he thought) Wuhan, etc. But still–what kind of person do you have to be to look at all the people downriver from Huayuankou and decide that it would be better for them to be homeless, uprooted, or maybe dead at your hands than for them to face the Japanese? Even with the lower estimates, it’s just so many people. Could someone knowingly order the incidental death of so many other people if he thought they were real people?

Back in America, friends and I would sometimes joke about how we were not “real people.” The joke began in college, when our ideas about the lives of real people–people who cooked and cleaned and paid bills and got out of bed before 8AM–seemed so far away from the lives we were actually living. It wasn’t that we weren’t working or cooking or cleaning or paying bills (so many bills); it was that there were certain details in our lives that were off, certain standards that we knew we were living under. I may have been working 20 hours a week and going to classes for 18, but I was also eating Annie’s macaroni and cheese for 75% of my meals and sleeping on half of a twin bed (because the other half was covered with laundry). I was basically a normal college student or just another young person for whom organization or cleanliness was not a real priority (nothing to see here)—except that for me and many of my other friends the trend did not stop. I graduated from college in the middle of a once in a lifetime financial crisis and put off looking for jobs that didn’t exist by moving to Taiwan where the realness of my person decreased even further: I worked, but illegally; I didn’t have a kitchen, so I ate mostly street food; I cleaned, but not enough to prevent myself from getting fleas (true story); I paid my bills, but I lived from paycheck to paycheck, got robbed (also a true story), and never had enough cash to support my lavish lifestyle of eating a 1USD cup of rice covered with pork trimmings every day.

Nothing will make you feel unreal like living on the brink of faux-financial ruin every day. (It was “faux” because I knew I could swallow my pride and call my parents at any time to bail me out — or maybe not: it was 2009, and in the wake of the Great Recession, our family business tanked so suddenly that my mother quietly went out and began pursuing a second, salaried career.) Regardless, the constraints of poverty, if you take them seriously, are serious. Saying you’re not a real person is only funny if you know you should and, more importantly, could become a real person. In college, the joke was funny because it was a reference to the future: One day, we would be real people, and the problems we were creating for ourselves because we spent the nights before our double shifts smoking shitty clove cigarettes till 4AM on Bay State Road stoops with strange, handsome men would be gone. On the other hand, one day we would be real people and our problems would be bigger, more boring; we would finally have something to lose, a life that was heavy, real, worth mourning.

I don’t know why I associated that kind of meaning with cooking, cleaning, and accountability. I do know that it took me a long time after moving back to America from Taiwan to feel like I could joke about not being “real” again. For at least two years, I wasn’t sure that I was going to be allowed to have the life I was gradually building for myself. Also, I had no money, and no things. It is hard to feel real when you know everything could be gone in a moment.

Here, of course, things are different. By my standards, I have finally arrived: I diligently cook, clean, keep a regular sleeping schedule, and pay probably more bills than I need to (you have no idea how complicated my gas bill is). In the eyes of my neighbors and friends, though, I’m still not a real person or, more precisely, an adult. Here, adulthood, maturity, what my friends and I would have called “real personhood” is associated with marriage. “Do you have a boyfriend?” people ask me after hearing that I am 26. I say no and change the subject even though I always want to add, “But I have savings, and I am doing an okay job of trying to save at least a third of my income every month for future vacations or emergencies!” It’s no use, though; all projected futures for “real” people involve spouses, and everything you do now should be done with them in mind. “You’re such a good cook and so good at housework!” a friend said to me the other day after eating the dinner I’d made her and watching me rapidly return my kitchen to its original state, “I think you’ll be a great wife someday.” She herself is learning English so that she can find a foreign husband–maybe, she muses aloud sometimes, one that she’ll meet through me.

Just before I left for China, I met up with one of my friends from college. She had just moved in with her boyfriend–into the house that he owned and had remodeled and designed with his own money. “Oh wow,” I breathed as we toured the house while he was still at work, “You’re dating a real person.” She laughed and told me that they’d actually had an argument about just that recently–he’d told her he didn’t like her tendency to say that she wasn’t a “real person,” that it was a way of putting herself down when she really didn’t need to. Which is true. It’s not for no reason that one of the worst things you can say to someone here is, “你不是人” or “You’re not a person.” But the flip side of the joke is that being a real person, on some real, cosmic level, sucks. When I am out on Saturday nights now and know I have to be somewhere Sunday morning, I do the responsible thing and hail a cab at 11PM even though it’s tempting to start talking to the strange, handsome man smoking reds outside the bars on Nongke Lu. But maybe that’s the biggest part of being a real person–knowing enough to know which problems you’d like to have and making the decision to live with them, deliberately.

Of course, you still have to live in a world that has its own ideas about what kinds of problems you should have. Last weekend I went to the Yellow River for the first time. Before you get to the bank of the actual river, you have to weave through an obstacle course of tourist traps: an overpriced outdoor restaurant that serves “Yellow River fish;” a hill-sized, Mount Rushmore-esque concrete sculpture of Yan and Huang, the mythic fathers of the Chinese people; a horse riding rink; and a geological museum that comically but unsurprisingly takes the viewer through more than 20 exhibits, all nationalistically lauding loess–the technical name for the Yellow River’s silt and dust–as a distinctly Chinese phenomena, but all failing to mention the geological effects of the 1938 flooding at all. The people looking at the exhibits haven’t forgotten, though. When we finally arrived at the river, which you can only see from the steep, narrow embankment between houseboats selling more overpriced fish and the speedboat docks, the person who took me to the river began telling me about Chiang, the flood, and the remaining dust. He wasn’t born then, but his father was. “He says that the water was so high it came up to his waist,” he said as we stared into the cloudy waters, “He used a bowl to catch fish in the kitchen.”

How hard must it be to feel like a real person when someone else has decided that you have nothing worth losing, that you can afford to have your life completely uprooted and untethered? What must it feel like to know, suddenly, through your soaked clothes, that after surviving one flood, your leader was prepared to let you perish in another? How long can someone bear knowing their lives were less real in the eyes of their government than others? After the Japanese were defeated and the civil war between Chiang’s KMT and the Chinese Communist Party began, Henan and the other affected areas became major strongholds for the CCP. It took nine years for the KMT to rebuild the dams; they were completed in 1947, just two years before the CCP drove Chiang and the rest of his supporters out of what would become the People’s Republic of China to the island of Taiwan. Sometimes, when I am mopping, I think I would rather be the person making the decision to destroy the dams at Huayuankou than the person cleaning up the consequences. Other times, I am just happy to be living here, in this time and place, my kitchen covered in dust instead of flood water and fish.

May 22, 2021
El Cerrito, California, United States of America

The author of that essay has eight years, seven international moves, and nine more kitchens ahead of her before she finally finds herself in the one I cook and clean in now. The life she’s carefully building for herself will eventually be lost. But also: oh well. Losing one possible life is not the same thing as losing one’s life. And sometimes you get lucky; sometimes there’s no comparison between the life you’ve lost and the one you’ve gained. When I leave the windows open, I never worry about dust, just pollen. When I’m stir-frying the tofu dish someone’s mother taught me how to make in his village near the border of Henan and Hubei, I think about how much I love the person I’m cooking for, not about how I’m never going to be a professor. When someone asks me whether or not I think the COVID-19 virus originated in a lab in Wuhan, I don’t tell them about the five years I spent researching accidents in the PRC. Instead, I ask: What difference would it make? It’s the question people kept asking me as I careened through Henan, asking them how they could live without knowing why things happened and who was responsible for them. It makes sense that I would be the one to ask it now. Here in California, my husband does most of the housework. The other day he was washing the dishes when a glass fell off the drying rack and shattered on the kitchen floor. When I came into the room, he started to explain how it had happened, and I told him that it didn’t matter. I brought him a pair of sandals so he wouldn’t hurt his feet. He used a small hand vacuum while I swept the floor. Together, we picked up the bigger pieces and laid them gently on top of the trash. We were lucky, and we didn’t cut our hands.

a person in overalls waves something blurry in the air

Original photo by Haley Lawrence

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